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Review of  Determiners

Reviewer: Jeffrey Punske
Book Title: Determiners
Book Author: Jila Ghomeshi Ileana M. Paul Martina Wiltschko
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Linguistic Theories
Issue Number: 21.2617

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EDITORS: Ghomeshi, Jila; Paul, Ileana; Wiltschko, Martina
TITLE: Determiners
SUBTITLE: Universals and variation
SERIES TITLE: Linguistik Aktuell/Linguistics Today 147
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins Publishing Company
YEAR: 2009

Jeffrey Punske, University of Arizona


The book contains a short introduction outlining the goals and assumptions of
the volume followed by seven chapters focusing on the status and role of
determiners, divided into three parts: The first part, containing three
chapters, focuses on the features of determiners. The second, containing
chapters four and five, deals with the function of determiners. Part three,
which contains the final two chapters, focuses on definiteness. Additionally,
it contains a comprehensive subject index. References follow each chapter.

The articles in the volume are based on papers presented at a workshop on
determiners held on 11/25/2006 in Winnipeg, Manitoba and a follow-up meeting
held 11/17/2007 in Vancouver, British Columbia.

1. Introduction. The volume opens with an introduction by the editors, outlining
the basic problems and objectives relevant to the volume as well as the
theoretical assumptions shared by the contributors. The main objective is to
identify the range of variation of the properties of determiners, with the
eventual goal of parameterizing them and developing a formal typology (Baker 2010).

This goal is complicated by a number of factors that the authors outline. Since
Ritter's (1991) NumP, a number of functional heads in the spirit of Cinque's
(1999) cartographic project have been proposed in the functional layer of the
determiner phrase, making it unclear whether a particular item is actually a
''determiner''. Similarly, Abney (1987) and Longobardi (1994) both propose
analyses placing non-determiners in the syntactic head which houses determiners.
This leads the authors to separate (the study of) the class of words commonly
referred to as ''determiners'' from the syntactic head D. Both are objects of
study in this volume. Throughout the rest of this review, I will use ''D'' to
refer to the syntactic category and ''determiner'' to refer to the word class.

The authors then outline ''three core issues in the investigation of determiners
across languages.'' These issues are: the proper characterization of the
syntactic category D, the function of determiners, and the relationship between
determiners and definiteness.

The introduction concludes with a brief summary of each of the chapters to
follow and a short conclusion.

2. ''What's in a determiner and how did it get there?'' - Martina Wiltschko. The
first chapter is Wiltschko's investigation of the features expressed in
determiners in Blackfoot, German and Halkomelem. In her discussion, she divides
these features into two classes: ''features that are integral to determiners'',
and ''features that modify determiners.'' These two feature classes are not
universally constructed; features vary as to which group they belong to
cross-linguistically. She argues that whether or not concord between the noun
and determiner is obligatory is a diagnostic for feature type, and that integral
features (which have obligatory concord) are uninterpretable features while
modifying features are interpretable. These formal distinctions lead to
differences in the derivation. The final section is a brief discussion of early
insertion of certain functional morphemes, but it is non-essential to the
overall argument. A brief conclusion argues that this account can be used to
explain paradigmatic organization, but offers no concrete results in that regard.

3. ''The proper D connection'' - Jila Ghomeshi & Diane Massam. This
chapterexplores the relationship between proper names and determiners focusing
extensively on their proposed features [common], [name] and [proper]. The
chapter begins with a substantive discussion of treatments of proper names over
the past 20 years. The authors note that the generalization that names and
determiners occur in complementary distribution is not universally true
cross-linguistically, nor even in all varieties of English. They follow
Longobardi (1994, 2005) in arguing that all instances of proper names
functioning as noun phrases contain a null determiner (they separate cases where
names function as adjectives or verbs). They argue for the three aforementioned
features: [name] and [common] which are present at the N-level and [proper]
which is a property of D. Cross-linguistic differences in the presence or
absence of an overt determiner are attributed to the presence or absence of a
marked determiner. In English, the null determiner is marked with the features
[proper, singular, definite] while the determiner ''the'' lacks both the features
[proper] and [singular]. The idea of having a feature like [proper] tied to the
determiner is supported by a contrast in Catalan which uses the determiner ''en''
to mark masculine names, but the determiner ''el'' to mark other masculine nouns.
The authors also argue that the use of the features [common] and [name] can
explain flexibility across the lexical categories typically associated with them.

4. ''Argument, pronouns and nominal feature geometry'' - Elizabeth Cowper & Daniel
Currie Hall. This chapter focuses on some problems with Déchaine and Wiltschko's
(2002, 2007) analyses of the classification of English pronouns based on their
corresponding nominal categories. Déchaine and Wiltschko argued that ''one'' is a
pro-NP, that the first person and second person pronouns are pro-DPs and that
the third person pronouns are all pro-PhiPs. The authors of this chapter agree
that ''one'' corresponds to an NP, but argue that all other pronouns correspond
with PhiPs.

The arguments for this distinction come from the different behavior of the
pronouns in various syntactic environments. For instance, it is shown that
first and second person pronouns do not allow sloppy interpretations in
ellipsis, while third person pronouns do. Differences as predicates and
pseudo-articles are also shown. The paper also includes a reconsideration of
data from Halkomelem and Shuswap discussed in Déchaine and Wiltschko (2002).

5. ''From local blocking to Cyclic Agree: The role and meaning of determiners in
the history of French.'' - Eric Mathieu. This chapter focuses on the optionality
of determiners in Old French, showing that Old French does not fit cleanly
Chierchia's (1998) typology of nominals. Its behavior classifies it with
Germanic and Slavic ([+pred, +arg]). But unlike Slavic, it has determiners and
unlike German, determiners are optional. This appears to be a violation of
Chierchia's Blocking Principle. As Mathieu states, ''… if Old French nominals
can be arguments without the support of determiners … what is the need for
determiners in Old French''? The rest of the chapter focuses on answering that
question and preserving the Blocking Principle.

Mathieu argues that the Old French data shows that the function of determiners
is related to neither argumenthood (contra Longobardi (1994)) nor referentiality
(contra Higginbotham (1985, 1987)). He argues that old French determiners come
from Latin demonstratives and behave more like demonstratives, appearing often
for focus or metrical reasons. Mathieu associates demonstratives with NUM. By
doing this, he is able to explain the shift from optional to obligatory
demonstratives through the loss of plural morphology in French, which shifted
the way agreement is grammatical realized.

6. ''Kinds of predicates and reference to kinds in Hebrew'' - Keren Tonciulescu.
This chapter also discusses potential problems for Chierchia's Blocking
Principle, focusing on the optionality of determiners in some Hebrew
constructions. In Hebrew, reference to kinds can be expressed through bare
singular nouns or with a definite determiner. Hebrew, like Old French in the
previous chapter, is classified as [+pred, +arg] along with Germanic and Slavic
and just as in the previous chapter the optionality of determiners poses a
problem from Chierchia's theory. Doron (2003) proposed a semantic solution, but
Tonciulescu argues that the analysis fails to capture all of the data. The
chapter discusses the troublesome data. Tonciulescu shows with this data that
the type of predicate is relevant in determining whether or not a nominal
receives a kind or object interpretation and not the presence or absence of a
determiner. The chapter concludes with a semantic account of the data based on
this observation.

7. ''The semantic core of determiners; Evidence from Skwxwu7mesh'' - Carrie
Gillon. The author argues that all determiners share a semantic core: domain
restriction. All other attributes ascribed to determiners (specificity, deixis,
definiteness, etc.) are subject to cross-linguistic variation. Gillon compares
determiners in English and Skwxwu7mesh and shows that while English encodes
definiteness in its determiner system, Skwxwu7mesh does not. In this process,
she presents previous semantic accounts of English determiners namely the
novel/familiar distinction and uniqueness and shows that neither are active in
Skwxwu7mesh, but that deixis, which is also related to domain restriction, is.
Gillon then presents a series of examples from both English and Skwxwu7mesh
which she uses to argue for inclusion of domain restriction (termed C) in the
semantic representation of determiners. This is because, despite the seemingly
disparate uses of determiners across the two languages, both languages'
determiners are context dependent.

The second half of the chapter focuses on whether determiners and quantifiers
share the same syntactic position (as argued for by Szabolcsi 1994). Gillon
presents evidence from both English and Skwxwu7mesh which show that determiners
and not quantifiers are not the locus of domain restriction. English evidence
is also used to show that quantifiers and determiners can co-occur.

8. ''On the presence versus absence of determiners in Malagasy'' - Ilena Paul.
This chapter argues against the traditional analysis of Malagasy determiners
which holds that the presence of a determiner (specifically ''ny'') encodes
definiteness and the lack of a determiner encodes indefiniteness. Paul argues
that the connection between definiteness and determiners is not so robust. In
particular, determiners are required in subject position but subjects can be
interpreted as indefinites. The chapter begins with a discussion of the Malagasy
determiner system and an overview of previous work on the
determiner/(in)definiteness connection. Paul then discusses the distribution of
the determiner ''ny'', and shows that whenever it is not required by the syntax
the argument must be understood as familiar. When the determiner is required by
the syntax either a familiar or non-familiar interpretation is possible.
Discussion then turns to nominals without a determiner (which Paul analyzes as a
null-determiner) and again shows that when the null-determiner is required by
the syntax both the familiar or non-familiar interpretations are possible; when
not required, only the non-familiar interpretation is possible. Paul argues that
the determiners uniformly encode familiarity (''ny'') or non-familiarity (null).
The instances that seem to disobey are argued to follow from Adger's (1996)
notions of effability and economy; when it is not possible for the derivation to
converge without a particular determiner, both interpretations are possible.


The volume assumes a good deal of familiarity with the basic assumptions and
theoretical mechanisms of Distributed Morphology (Halle and Marantz 1993,
onward) and (to a lesser extent) cartographic theories of grammar. Readers who
are not familiar with these approaches might struggle to unpack some of the
analyses. Contributions vary as to how much they detail assumptions and previous
accounts. Overall the volume does not form a cohesive unit.

Several contributions will likely have lasting implications to the study of
determiners. I discuss some of the highlights here while raising some open
questions left unanswered by the analyses.

Wilstchko’s chapter 1 is well reasoned and well presented but one major issue
further consideration. If we set demonstratives and determiners apart then a
very striking pattern emerges. In German and Blackfoot all determiner features
are integral; in Halkomelem, they are all modificational. The only feature that
disobeys its language's patterns is the German proximate feature. The assumption
that determiners and demonstratives are instances of the same syntactic object
is contested (see Bošković 2004, among others). This could suggest that
d-features are bundled and are either modificational or integral as a group.
Are there any truly mixed systems, where say Case is modificational but gender
is integral? If not, how should this account be modified?

Related to this, Wiltschko argues that this approach can explain why some
languages (like Blackfoot) only have demonstratives (and no determiners).
However, it is unclear if this would explain the behavior of most Slavic
languages which lack determiners but whose demonstratives seem to fit more
closely with the modifying features.

Mathieu’s chapter 4 is the most expansive paper in the volume, covering three
distinct but interconnected topics: the shift in determiner function from Old to
Modern French, the grammatical function of determiners cross-linguistically, and
a technical analysis to preserve the Blocking Principle. It does all three
well. But much like the Wiltschko chapter at the beginning of the volume, parts
of the analysis beg the question as to whether determiners and demonstratives
can be considered the same syntactic object. Much of the analysis rests on a
transition from a demonstrative-like item to a determiner-like one; because of
this, it is unclear whether the generalizations offered about
argumenthood/referentiality and determiners can be made.

Gillon’s chapter 6 is one of the few in the volume that truly lives up to the
''universals and variation'' subtitle. Where many deal with puzzles from a
particular language or set of languages and leave it to the reader to
generalize, this chapter states that its goal is capturing a universal.

Some other chapters tend to over-assume background knowledge. Unlike the
stronger works in this volume, the analyses contained within these chapters seem
less generalizable to data outside of their (relatively narrow) scope.

Chapter 3 assumes a great deal of familiarity with the details of previous
analyses. The analysis feels largely mechanical, a technical fix to a technical
problem. Unlike every other piece in the volume this chapter contributes
virtually no new data. The data is almost all drawn from Déchaine and
Wiltschko's previous analyses. Because the paper is reconsidering some of the
conclusions of Déchaine and Wiltschko, with much of the same data, the bigger
picture implications are not clear. Despite these issues, the chapter will no
doubt be of use to scholars working on the syntactic behavior of pronouns.

Chapter 5 is the least freestanding contribution; to fully understand it and its
implications, readers should read the Mathieu paper which precedes it. The
chapter presents the relevant data extremely well, but both the background
(especially discussion of Doron's analysis) and the discussion of the new
analysis go by very quickly.

Overall, most of the contributions are of high quality. Scholars working on
aspects of determiner phrases or on languages discussed in the volume will no
doubt find use for the contributions.


Adger, D. 1996. Economy and optionality: Interpretations of subjects in Italian.
Probus 8: 117-135.

Baker, M. 2010. Formal generative typology. In The Oxford Handbook of Linguistic
Analysis, B. Heine & H. Narrog (eds.), Oxford: OUP.

Bošković, Ž. 2004. 'Topicalization, focalization, lexical insertion, and
scrambling', Linguistic Inquiry 35: 613-638.

Chierchia, G. 1998. Reference to kinds across languages. Natural Language
Semantics 6: 339-405.

Cinque, G. 1999. Adverbs and Functional Heads. A Cross Linguistic Perspective.
Oxford: OUP

Déchaine, R.M. and M. Wiltschko. 2002. Decomposing pronouns. Linguistic Inquiry
33(3): 409-422.

Déchaine, R.M. and M. Wiltschko. 2007. When and why can 1st and 2nd person
pronouns be bound variables? Ms, University of British Columbia.

Doron, E. 2003. Bare singulars and reference to kinds. In Proceedings of Israel
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Halle, M. and A. Marantz. 1993. Distributed morphology and pieces of inflection.
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MA: The MIT Press.

Higginbotham, J. 1985. On semantics. Linguistic Inquiry 16: 547-593.

Higginbotham, J. 1987. Indefinites and predication. In The Representation of
(In)definiteness, E. Reuland & A. ter. Meulen (eds), 43-70. Cambridge MA: The
MIT Press.

Longobardi, G. 1994. Reference and proper names: A theory of N-movement in
syntax and logical form. Linguistic Inquiry 25: 609-665.

Longobardi, G. 2005. Toward a unified grammar of reference. Zeitschrift für
Sprachwissenschaft 24: 5-44.

Ritter, E. 1991. Two functional categories in noun phrases: Evidence from Modern
Hebrew. In Perspectives on Phrase Structure: Heads and Licensing, S.D.
Rothstein, (eds.), 37-62. New York: Academic Press.

Szabolcsi, A. 1994. The noun phrase. In Syntax and Semantics 27: The Syntactic
Structure of Hungarian, F. Kiefer & K. Kiss (eds), 179-275. New York: Academic

Jeffrey Punske is a PhD candidate at the University of Arizona where he primarily focuses on syntax and semantics. His dissertation focuses on nominalization, adjective order and quantification and their impact on the DP-CP Parallelism Hypothesis.